Honey, a Gift of Nature

February 8, 2016 Updated: February 9, 2016

Honey was the ancients’ first sweetener, a gift of nature. Bees buzzing on slopes bright with flowers provided this treasure long before the first attempts at agriculture.

Mesopotamian folklore thought of honey as a magical substance with medicinal and purifying powers. It was thought that gods who drank honey were made immortal and were immune to sickness. Babylonians and Assyrians fermented honey and drank the resulting mead, while ancient Egyptians made a syrupy drink of fermented date juice and honey that was very high in alcohol.

Here are three recipes that use honey.

Roast Chicken or Pheasant with Grapes (Greek-inspired recipe)

Makes 4 servings

3 1/2 lb whole frying chicken or 2 pheasants
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tsp crumbled dried oregano
1/4 tsp garlic salt
4 tbsp butter
Juice of 2 lemons
2 cups seedless green grapes
2 tbsp honey
3 tbsp dry white wine
3 tbsp sherry

Dry chicken or pheasants with paper towelling. Mix salt, pepper, half the oregano, and garlic salt and rub the surface and cavity of the poultry. Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a roasting pan and roll the poultry in butter, turning to coat all sides. Place bird breast down and roast in a preheated 425º F oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325º F and roast for an hour longer or until tender. Pour lemon juice over the chicken or pheasants, cover and let stand 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter in a saucepan, add the grapes, and shake pan to coat. Add honey, white wine, and sherry and heat until just blended. Cover pan and let stand a few minutes. Put bird or birds on a hot platter and sprinkle with remaining oregano.

Skim fat from pan drippings and stir in 1/3 cup water. Bring to a boil and serve in a sauce boat. Scoop out grapes with a slotted spoon and arrange around bird.

Honey Date and Walnut Bread

1 cup water
1 cup pitted and chopped dates
2 tbsp butter
3/4 cup honey
1 egg
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup chopped walnuts

Bring water to a boil in a saucepan. Add dates and cook 3 minutes, stirring. Cool slightly. In a mixing bowl, cream butter and gradually beat in honey, then egg. Stir in date mixture. Sift flour with baking powder and salt. Add to creamed mixture with nuts. Mix well. Pour into a buttered 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan and bake in a slow oven (300º F) for an hour and 15 minutes or until done. Cool, then slice and serve.

Sesame Honey Cheese Tart

1/2 recipe short pastry or any pastry
1 lb cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp nutmeg
3 egg yolks, well beaten
2 tbsp toasted ground sesame seeds
3 egg whites, stiffly beaten

Roll out pastry to 1/8-inch thick and line a 10-inch buttered pie plate. Make a standing 1/2-inch fluted edge. Chill while preparing filling. Beat cream cheese until smooth. Mix with cream, add honey, then sugar mixed with nutmeg. Add egg yolks, beating well.

Add sesame seeds, then fold in egg whites. Pour into prepared pie shell. Bake in preheated 350º F oven for 45 minutes.

This recipe is from L’Arte di ben cucinare, c. 1662.

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings, and Doctor’s Review, among others. She is currently the European editor of Taste & Travel International. Email: hallett_susan@hotmail.com